Moviegoers are becoming more savvy when it comes to the “surprise” film. We’ve seen the likes of “The Sixth Sense,” “Memento” and “The Crying Game” enough to know there’s a shocking twist we’ll have to hide from friends who haven’t seen the movie, and we can see it coming a mile away. The obvious approach and execution of most of these movies leads to more groans than shocks and leaves viewers with a bad taste in their mouths.

While the genre is based on a simple formula, not all surprise movies are created equal. “The Others,” by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, is one of the better films of the genre.

Set after the end of World War II, the film involves an overbearing mother, played perfectly by the dependable Nicole Kidman, whose life revolves around the care of her children, who are stricken with a deadly sensitivity to sunlight. Strict with both her children and her new servants, Kidman’s character displays a profound fear of the world that lends itself to the slow suspense of the film’s plot.

Amenabar keeps a wonderful pace throughout the film, neither too fast nor too slow, allowing the audience to appreciate the careful characterization as it develops. Key to the experience of this movie is figures that have been fleshed out more than most studio creations.

The film is more of a gothic film than a horror film, meaning that it is creepier and more spine tingling than scary. The terror is pure atmosphere rather than gory killings. Though crazed killers and monsters jumping from the shadows are shocking, the fear of death is more genuinely felt, and more disturbing, in films such as “The Others” that play closer attention to reality and uses psychology for thrills.

For instance, Amenabar uses the creepy atmosphere of old houses and antiques to build a backdrop of suspense as imagined histories spur the imagination to macabre flights of fancy. In “The Others,” the house and its furnishings become their own characters, subtly bolstering the overall fabric of the movie. Here the surroundings add so much to the gothic feel of the film, that one can almost feel the drafts and breathe in the dust.

And fog: everything is surrounded by thick, persistent fog. The mist envelops the gothic estate, a physical expression of the family’s isolation.

Amenabar has proven that he is a very skilled director in the same vein as M. Night Shyamalan, the director of “The Sixth Sense.” Though “The Others” certainly benefited from the box office precedent of Shyamalan’s film, it has more in common with the intense atmosphere of Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder.”

The best part of a film like “The Others” is the deconstruction the audience does on the ride home from the theater, pondering the twists and turns. Films like this burrow into the mind and take hold in the memory. Think “Brazil” or “The Usual Suspects.”

“The Others” is a bright spot in a film year that has been more lackluster than blockbuster, and leaves the moviegoer with hope that the studio has been saving its better films for fall.

Staff Writer Stephen Allan can be contacted at [email protected]


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